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Psychological safety key to unlocking the benefits of diversity

Health Industry Hub | July 22, 2022 |
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The promise of diversity in teams is that the different perspectives, ideas, and opinions will result in greater performance in competitive environments.

The reality is that team diversity poses barriers to collaboration by impeding effective communication. At the same time, effective collaboration among diverse individuals is essential for team learning and team performance in complex and uncertain contexts.

A recent study of 62 pharmaceutical drug-development teams suggests that the key to getting diverse team members to work better together and tap into the potential of diversity is to create a psychologically safe environment.

The authors said “We sought to test the idea of psychological safety as a ‘lubricant’ in diverse teams empirically, using data from a sample of 62 pharmaceutical drug development teams in six large pharmaceutical firms in a high-pressure environment. The diverse teams’ work involved external partners, tight deadlines, and high expectations regarding safety and efficacy from regulatory authorities.

“Our results reveal that team diversity had a slightly negative effect on performance on average. However, diversity was positively associated with performance in those teams with high psychological safety. By contrast, diversity was even more negatively associated with performance in teams with lower psychological safety.”

The authors added “In addition to psychological safety’s enabling role in team performance, members of teams with high psychological safety reported greater satisfaction working in those teams. These results support the proposition that psychological safety helps teams realise the potential of diversity – both for performance and well-being.”

Two ways are suggested in building psychological safety in diverse teams: framing and inquiry.

Framing

  1. Frame meetings as opportunities for information-sharing rather than evaluation and decision-making. This helps people focus on what ideas and information they can share, rather than being ‘right’.
  2. Frame differences in opinion or perspective as a source of value. For instance, try saying ‘Each of us is likely to have different perspectives going into this meeting, and this will help us arrive at a fuller understanding of the issues at stake in this decision (or project).’

Inquiry

The best way to make it easy for people to contribute their thoughts is to ask them to do so. As noted by Brene Brown (2021), empathy often takes more than walking in someone’s shoes; it takes the willingness to really listen to the story about what it is like to walk in those shoes. This is particularly true in teams characterised by diversity. The goal is to build an understanding of differences to facilitate the effective use of those differences.

The authors found three lines of inquiry that are effective in uncovering subtle differences in diverse teams that may be valuable but nonobvious.

  1. Hopes and goals. What do you want to accomplish?
  2. Concerns and obstacles. What are you up against? What are you worried about?
  3. Resources and skills. What do you bring to the table?

Also, questions that recognise shared ownership and causality are more effective than those that don’t. For example, ask ‘What did we (or I) do to put you in a challenging position?’ or ‘How can we help?’ vs ‘What did you do that created this situation?’ or ‘What do you think you can do about it?’

The authors conclude “Our data suggests that diverse teams perform better under conditions of high psychological safety than their homogeneous counterparts.”


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